Time Management

by Karen Patterson

Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.

Carl Sandburg.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Just Say NO
  • Make Meetings Work for You
  • Delegate
  • Minimize Interruptions
  • Plan Your Day/Week/Month/Year
  • Know Yourself
  • Don't Procrastinate
  • Organize Your Office
  • Bibliography

  • Introduction

    Can time management really be that important in the grand scheme of things? With the myriad other things nagging at a library manager - hiring, training, budgets, collection development, fundraising, customer service, and on and on, does she have time to practice good time management? The answer is obvious - what all these things have in common us that they require time. If the librarian doesn't practice time management, she will likely fail at the tasks she must succeed at to be a successful manager.

    If a librarian is a poor time manager, she will not have time to thoroughly research her previous annual budget to see where it was short. Consequently, in a rush, she will submit essentially the same budget this year and find herself in the same predicament - too few funds. If a librarian is a poor time manager, she will not spend the time necessary on new employee interviews and will wonder why her staff is so ill-suited to the requirements of the library and why she spends so much time counseling her employees. If a librarian is a poor time manager, she will find herself constantly working just to keep up with the day-to-day requirements of her job, and she will never find the time to develop a vision and a plan for achieving that vision. And, she will be at her job late into the evening, long after the rest of the staff have gone home. And that is the crux of time management.

    When deciding if time management is important, consider why you should manage your time. The old adage, "all work and no play makes Johnny a dull boy," is absolutely true. A well-balanced life includes time for things other than work: for things that are much more important than work; family and friends, health and recreation, spiritual development and volunteerism, among others. So, practicing time management at your job is not merely so you get more work squeezed into an eight-hour day, but mostly so you have time for the important things in life. There are plenty of books on how to maintain focus in your life (several are listed in this chapter's bibliography). That is not the topic of this chapter, but it is the reason the tips provided here are so important.

    To control your time, you need a very clear understanding of your priorities, not only for a particular day, but also for your job and your life. This requires constant planning, review, and revision. Take time every day to determine what tomorrow's priorities are. Frequently and regularly review the library's mission and goals; make sure that what you do forwards them. Do the same thing with your life: determine what is important, and make sure that you spend time forwarding those things. Focus, have goals, have a plan, and time management will be easier, because you will have some basis for the decisions and choices you will have to make.

    This chapter provides some time-tested (sorry, couldn't resist the pun) remedies for the refrain "there's never enough time." However, the most important thing to remember, once you understand that time management is crucial to your mental health, is that no time management plan will work if it doesn't suit your personality. As you read the chapter, decide: will this work for me; how can I modify this concept to fit the way I live; what else can I come up with that fits my unique way of thinking? Try everything, discard what doesn't work, and keep what does. For time management techniques to succeed, you must fit them into your life style, not the other way around.

    Just Say NO

    Or, if that seems too harsh, practice "Let me think about it." Librarians are service- oriented, therefore, may find it more difficult than other people do to say no to any request. However, you must remember your priorities. You are the manager; your role is different from librarians without management responsibilities. Your staff is hired to provide customer service; your job is to run an effective, efficient library. If you really can't bear to say no to any request (including those from your church or the soccer team), assertiveness training may be good for you.

    Often people are uncomfortable turning down a request for one of several reasons: they don't want to appear confrontational, they don't want to seem to be rejecting the requestor, being asked to do things makes them feel important, they feel that saying "no" will stymie their career, or they like being incredibly busy.

    Make meetings work for you

    Meetings can be huge time-wasters if you do not plan them carefully. First, decide if you really need to hold a meeting? If there is a decision to be made, can you make it yourself? Do not form a committee if you can make the decision yourself. If you need to disseminate information would an email work just as well? If a meeting is necessary, limit the attendance to only those who really need to participate.

    When you do have a meeting, plan it.


    Know your strengths and weaknesses. Know the strengths and weaknesses of your staff. Delegate tasks when you can. Remember that delegating does two things: it frees your time for things that only you can do and it builds your staff's abilities and self-esteem. Delegation requires some planning and monitoring to be successful.

    Minimize interruptions

    Interruptions are huge time-wasters. At the very least, they break your train of thought. More often than not, you spend precious minutes on something that is not important or urgent. Discourage people from dropping in without an appointment to chat except at appointed times. Establish a time when you are available if anyone needs to see you -- often right after lunch, when most people are least productive, is a good time. People are free to drop in then without an appointment. When someone comes in your office at another time, politely ask the purpose of the visit. Determine if it is important and urgent and needs your immediate attention. If it does not, set up an appointment to meet with them.

    Alternatively, establish a door policy. If your door is open, you are available to your staff. If your door is shut, you are available for important things only (its good to let your staff know what sort of things you consider important). And if you absolutely do not want to be disturbed unless the building is on fire or a crime has been committed, hang a "do not disturb" sign on your closed door. If you use this system and are sparing with the use of the sign, staff will generally respect your privacy.

    Phone calls are sometimes more demanding than people. Train yourself to let your phone roll over to voice mail. On your message, remind people to be very specific about why they are calling so that when you return their call, you can provide them with the information they are seeking. That way, even if they are unavailable, you can leave them a message with the information they need, thereby breaking the dreaded phone tag loop. Return the courtesy. When you leave a message, be very specific about why you are calling. Return all calls at one time. For example, return the calls you received in the morning right before you go to lunch and return the calls you receive in the afternoon before you go home. If you don't have voice mail, ask someone to screen your calls and take messages, getting enough information so that when you return the call, you are able to answer the inquiry.

    Email can be a time-waster or a tremendous time-saver. Read and respond to emails only at designated times during the day, for example at the beginning of the day, before lunch, and again before you leave work. But, email is an excellent way to convey information. It can be more precise than voice mail, the sender and receiver have a record of the communication, more information can be conveyed than through voice mail, and the information can be conveyed at a convenient time.

    Plan your day/week/month/year

    But in reverse order. The best way to ensure that you accomplish the important things is to spend time each day determining what you want to accomplish the next day, or in the next week or the next month. Prioritize your tasks so that if something unexpected comes up (as it inevitably will) the critical things still get finished. Planning, more than any other activity, ensures good time management. The time it takes to plan is well-spent. The makers of daily planners (Day Timer , Franklin Quest, and Day Runner) all have training classes and materials to help you learn to plan effectively. Planning is a very individual thing and what works well for one person may not work for the next person at all, therefore, take advantage of these materials. They offer a variety of ways to plan, knowing that different people think differently.

    In general, draw up a daily list of things to do, and prioritize them so you give the greatest time to the truly important tasks. When planning your schedule consider what you know about yourself. Determine what time of day you work best (often in the morning) and do the most difficult tasks then. Do less pleasant tasks before the ones you enjoy - then you "reward" yourself for your earlier hard work. Don't schedule your day to the minute. Leave some unscheduled time each day to accommodate all those unexpected things that always come up. Check off tasks as you finish them. Those checkmarks give you a sense of accomplishment and help keep you motivated. Set aside time each day to plan the next day, and to do long-range planning. During that time, review not only what you accomplished that day and need to get done the next, but what needs to get done in the next week, which of your monthly goals can be done, what part of a long-range goal can be worked on.

    Planning is the key, and deserves an entire chapter, not just a couple of paragraphs. If you don't read anything else on time management, spend some time reading about planning and perfecting a system of your own. The characteristics of a successful planning system include that it is not too cumbersome to use, and it works.

    Know yourself

    Don't Procrastinate

    Everyone procrastinates about some things. Determine those unpleasant tasks you'd rather not do, and so put off until they become a crisis. Then, well before they reach a crisis stage: Often procrastination is the result of being overwhelmed by the size of the task. Break big tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces that are easily done in several hours or a day. As you do each one, you will soon realize that, small step by small step, you have almost completed the entire huge task.

    Organize your office

    Poorly organized people spend a great deal of time hunting for files and important papers. Several books outline systems for organizing papers, projects, filing systems, desks, and offices. Again, because this is very personal, one system does not work for everyone. Invest in one of these books and modify the suggestions so they work for you. A book about organization is provided in the bibliography.

    The tips provided here are obvious and easy to implement. As you work, you will discover other ways to save time based on your job responsibilities, the organization, even the physical layout of the facility. One last tip: keep a picture in your office of what is really important to you - family, pet, place, whatever is your top priority. It will remind you of why you are working and why you should work smarter, not harder.


    Smith, H. W. 1994. 10 Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management: Proven Strategies for Increased Productivity and Inner Peace. Warner Books. New York, New York.

    McCarthy, K. W. 1992. The On-Purpose Person: Making Your Life Make Sense. Pinon Press. Colorado Springs, Colorado.

    Blumenthal, J. 1998. How to take control of your life and say "good-bye" to stress. Bottom Line Personal 20(6): 9-10. March 15.

    Winston, S. 1983. The Organized Executive: New Ways to Manage Time, Paper, and People. Warner Books. New York, New York.

    Brewer, K. C. 1991. Getting Things Done. National Press Publications. Shawnee Mission, KS.

    Truitt, M. R. 1991. The Supervisor's Handbook. National Press Publications. Shawnee Mission, KS.

    In addition, there are countless articles in popular and professional magazines and journals. Time management is a popular topic. I did not include any in the bibliography because they all present the same basic ideas and techniques, and more articles are published every month. For a listing, search on "time management" in any database.

    [Back to Handbook home page]